The Puzzling Paradox of Paraguay

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Friday, January 20, 2006

Paraguay seems to have a split personality! Maybe it all stems from the fact that the country is divided down the middle by the Río Paraguay. To the west is the vast expanse of the Gran Chaco plain which comprises about 60% of the land area but has less than 5% of the country's population. There is one tarmac road which heads straight as an arrow to the north-west, and reaches about three-quarters of the way across the plain. Turn off this road or head towards the Bolivian or Brazilian borders and you are most definitely on your own. It is a huge, flat, remote ranching area, dotted with palms and eventually degenerating into scrubby bush. There is abundant bird life - especially waterfowl around the ponds - and a total of almost 400 species have been recorded. However, the local fauna - which includes jaguars, pumas, tapirs and armadillos - is very elusive. Because off-the-road access is so difficult you are most likely to just see herds of zebu cattle grazing. The terrain is almost entirely featureless except for the generally unseen 500 m peak of Cerro Leon rising in the very north.

As soon as you pay your toll on the east side of the river, Paraguay suddenly comes magically to life. You are almost immediately into the outskirts of the capital city, Asunción, and everything abruptly becomes very urban - with the occasional very sophisticated mall. There are several other smaller cities, and the towns and villages seem to run into each other. People are everywhere and the terrain is more interesting with some ranges of hills, even a few small mountains. The farming is quite intensive, and in some areas rather large-scale, with huge combine-harvesters ready to go to work soon in the fields of soybeans, cotton and sugarcane. Nevertheless, even though this south-east portion of the country gives a good impression of a modern-day state, there are many anomalies that quickly remind you that this is still very much a developing country. If you decide to drive south through the central area to Encarnación, you will quickly discover that after Villarica the road just fizzles out into a network of rough, muddy, windy tracks for the next 200 km - with not a single sign for the whole way. Ox carts and horses are the order of the day, and life proceeds at a very sedate pace. You'll find that this is not such a bad idea anyway, as the extreme heat and humidity will have you languishing around for a four-hour lackadaisical siesta the same as everybody else.

If you're here to brush up on your Spanish, you'd better make sure you bring along a German dictionary as well! In various parts of the country there are such well established immigrant colonies that you can go for days without barely hearing a word of Spanish at all. And of course, if you're up in the Filadelfia area, you'll need to get a handle on Low German - supposedly a dialect, but in reality a distinct language in its own right. If you had been here three centuries ago, some skills in Latin would no doubt have also been very useful. The Jesuits established many missions in the upper Paraná region of present-day Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, and the area just east of Encarnación has some strikingly impressive and extensive ruins at Trinidad and Jesús.

Founded in 1706, the missions brought about a remarkable transformation in the lives of the indigenous Guaraní people, despite major problems of marauding slave traders, diseases introduced from Europe, and the opposition of local chiefs and Spanish landowners. Within two generations, large agriculturally-diversified and economically-prosperous communities formed the basis for significant political, social and cultural change. The formerly nomadic Guaraní people chose to work in the large communal fields, raising crops such as tobacco, cotton and citrus as well as "yerba mate" (more about that next time). They also learned many other trades and skills, notably woodworking and cabinet making, and eventually became extremely proficient in making and playing harps and other stringed and wind instruments. They lived within the structured and orderly life of the mission, and the stone ruins remaining today attest to the remarkably advanced state and successfulness of the society developed by the Jesuits. In the end - in fact as early as the 1760s - the success of the Jesuit Order aroused envy elsewhere within the Catholic Church, and intrigue against them from other Spanish interests, resulting in their forced expulsion from the area by 1768.

If you can't manage a trip down to Paraguay to wander and let your imagination run wild among the Jesuit ruins, you could do worse than rent the DVD and immerse yourself again in the high drama of Robert Bolt's 'The Mission'. The beautifully haunting music of Ennio Morricone is a wonderful bonus. However, if you are planning a trip to Paraguay, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to check out all the anomalies and contradictions of this puzzling backwater of a country deep in the heart of South America.
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